If the polar ice cap calved an unusual number of icebergs this weekend, it could have been due to the white-hot intensity of Gustavo Dudamel and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance of The Rite of Spring Friday afternoon in Symphony Hall. 

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Symphony Hall
© Hilary Scott

The pastoral languor of the introduction’s pan-piping bassoon, bird calls and random nature sounds lulled the senses with its broad, breathing tempo and deceptive dreaminess, heightening the dramatic contrast and ferocity of the slashing, pounding, and, at times, overlapping rhythms that Dudamel, conducting from memory, incised with an economy of gesture in the episodes which followed. Balance and control yielded clarity of texture in a score which can sound unnecessarily dense and thick, particularly in its loudest passages. Only once did volume muddy the waters – in the cacophony of “Games of the rival clans”. As a whole, “The Adoration of the Earth” was fierce and unrelenting, whilst “The Sacrifice” was more measured and mystical. Dudamel’s gradual escalation of heat and tension transformed the pagan savagery of Stravinsky’s spring ritual into a true catharsis which brought the sold-out house to its feet with a roar. Unlike the 1913 première, however, it was a roar of approval. With his attention to detail and rhythmic control and flexibility, Dudamel had succeeded in making this familiar work sound revolutionary all over again.

Schumann’s depiction of Spring is also sacramental. The recently-wed composer consecrated his first completed symphony (composed in a three-week whirlwind of inspiration) to the season of new beginnings and rebirth with a solemn fanfare – “a summons to awakening” – issuing from on high and evocative of the Lutheran anthem.

Dudamel opted for an orchestra of about 45 players, approximating the size of the Gewandhaus orchestra when Mendelssohn led the 1841 première. He divided first and second violins, placing the violas where the second violins normally sit and arraying the first two chairs of the violins, violas, and cellos slightly apart from their sections and in a tight semi-circle around the podium (the same seating pertained after intermission for the Stravinsky). Once again conducting from memory, Dudamel opted for a bright, lean sound in the first movement. The fanfare gleamed with the glow of a spring morning. Its summons was gentle but no less prayerful than more weighty interpretations. Maintaining a broad tempo, what followed played like a long exhalation of contentment before the sunburst of merriment in the allegro section. The fact that the triangle was always audible was testimony to the balance and clarity Dudamel created in this movement. The second movement reverie unfolded with a deeper, fuller tone and the third danced with the sometimes heavy step of a dancer whose enthusiasm outstrips his dexterity. Dudamel brought the symphony to a close with an impish frolic, Mendelssohnian in its animation and grace.

We know that music “hath charms to soothe a savage breast”. Hopefully, it has the power to give Mother Nature a timely nudge as well. After rousing and wild musical depictions of the change of season, the weather awaiting the departing public was far from vernal and unseasonably raw enough to make human sacrifice an entirely reasonable proposition.